Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles (WWE Smackdown 6/12/20)

Match Reviews

I’m kind of running out of ways to talk about how the Greatest Wrestler of All Time and the unofficial Wrestler of the Year is incredibly good at his job.

This match rules because of course it does. These two have been having bangers against each other for nearly two decades now. The last time we saw this pairing put on a great championship match was at TLC 2018 when the roles were reversed. Bryan came in as the malevolent heel champion whereas AJ played the standup babyface. Here in the finals of a tournament for the vacant Intercontinental Championship, Bryan took the longer route—refusing a bye and fighting an extra match in the semi-finals–whereas AJ took advantage of circumstance to slip right into the final.

One blemish we can find on this match comes from before the bell even rings. AJ’s quick loss to Gulak last week pretty much telegraphs the result that we’ll be getting here tonight. It is, decidedly, the worse possible result so that puts a damper on proceedings. But luckily, the greatest wrestler of all time is at work and his magic can often surpass something as trivial as bad booking.

This was a pretty lengthy match extending over multiple commercial segments on Smackdown. This is the first time in a while that Bryan’s been able to stretch his legs in an extended setting instead of working the incredibly efficient and concise television matches that have made up the bulk of his case for 2020. But here we see that his instincts for pacing and structure are as strong as ever.

Much of this match builds itself around dueling limb psychology. In the opening goings, both men target each other’s arms. While AJ makes a decent show of it to start, his offense doesn’t really have the kind of nuance to make that kind of extended arm work interesting. AJ gives up on it pretty fast which allows Bryan to take the lead and show him how it’s done. There’s a lot of great work by Bryan on the arm ranging from the blatant like ramming AJ’s shoulder into the ringpost to the more subtle of jamming his knuckles into the elbow. AJ does well enough selling it for the second act of the match but it’s a thread that gets lost towards the finishing stretch.

AJ responds in kind however by moving to some leg work on Bryan. It’s nothing nearly so intricate but there’s strong moments of brutality here. The best spot comes from AJ tying up Bryan’s legs in the ropes and just going after it before leaving Bryan to hang there and overextend his knee. It’s good stuff and while this is mostly done in service of a Calf Crusher submission tease, the GOAT makes the most of his limb selling here. Again, Bryan displays the range of subtle work before moving to the very edges of overblown vanity selling here. There’s the difficulty keeping his weight while laying in the YES Kicks. Then there’s the straight up crumble spot from his flip off the top ropes. Delightful to see a master at work.

The finishing stretch was incredibly effective at playing off of the really big offense that these guys can bring. AJ busts out a nasty brainbuster and they follow that up with a wonderful exchange of bridging German Suplexes. There’s a small moment amidst all that big offense of Bryan busting out the same pinning combination that Gulak used to beat AJ last week to only get a nearfall here. It’s that kind of subtle nod to the character dynamics outside of the match that display what makes someone like Bryan a true master of the craft.

But probably Bryan’s best work in the finishing stretch is just his body language. He’s spent a decade refining the physical manifestation of his babyface fire and it again displays such a wide range of dynamics. For me, it’s at its best when the determination is merely bubbling up on the surface. It feels like a powerful force that Bryan might actually be trying to restrain but it’s growing more powerful every moment. It’s near impossible not to be swept away and root for this man to cave in a flat earther’s face.

The finish is a shame as the wrong man wins here. But that’s fine. It’s at least accompanied by the beautiful Running Knee into a Styles Clash counter that probably should have ended things but they at least didn’t waste it by burning a nearfall on it. Another excellent outing on the resume of the greatest performer in the sport’s history.

Not that he needed it.

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